A desirable new normal in economic and social policy will require a new normal in Australian politics. For a decade or more we have suffered from hyper-partisanship and the constant campaign. Good policy is no longer recognised as good politics. Arguably, Scott Morrison is the supreme example, being until now the most ‘transactional’ of political leaders.
COVID 19 has seen a transformation: ideology set aside, consultation taking place with the Opposition and ACTU, the establishment of the ‘National Cabinet’, and expertise valued. But will this last?
Our parliamentary system is built on adversarial politics, and this will return as soon as, if not before, the crisis is over; and federalism allows differences and constrains central power. However, perhaps the public will demand in future that debates and differences be based much more on substance than superficial PR and politicking.
Whether a more productive approach to politics emerges will depend in part on how the parliament handles its oversight of COVID 19 action: whether it can demonstrate a constructive approach to holding the Government accountable, identifying lessons for the future as well as having the courage to call out both failures and successes.
The Public Service
The APS seems mostly to have risen well to the current crisis. I am not surprised, not only because I respect the commitment of public servants to the public they serve, but also because Australia has a good record of coordinated responses to crises over at least the last two decades.
We have also witnessed an apparent rediscovery by our political leaders of ‘responsible government’ principles including the importance of due process, fair public administration that is non-partisan, recognition of expertise, and acceptance that decisions should not be based simply on the instincts of elected politicians. Political leaders are keen not only to draw on public service expertise but to be seen to do so.
These developments represent a significant shift. The so-called ‘sports rorts’ affair has almost been forgotten along with the associated claims that it is entirely appropriate for ministers to ignore due process and impartiality, and to attack ‘unaccountable bureaucrats’. Likewise, the ‘robo-debt’ case and the willingness to overlook legal and ethical requirements for fairness. While the Government gave lip service to the Thodey Report last December, it rejected the key recommendations aimed at strengthening the APS as an institution with a degree of independence based on its values of professionalism, impartiality and non-partisanship. The PM simultaneously sacked another five secretaries making clear his determination to keep the bureaucracy under close control; he also confirmed his limited interest in APS policy advising.
With others, I have been pressing for a parliamentary inquiry to explore the Thodey recommendations that were rejected. Such a major report of the APS – whose first legislated object is “to establish an apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public” (my emphasis) – should not be left to the Government alone. For now, that might be too hard. But as the parliament reflects on the lessons from this crisis it might give attention to the importance of a ‘new normal’ that recognises the institution that is the public service, and the measures needed to protect its role and nurture its capability.
Originally published in the Canberra Times, 5 May, re-posted with permission of author